To hear Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Eugene White tell it, the district’s Arlington, Broad Ripple, Howe and Washington community high schools are well on their way to educational success.
White says passing rates on state tests improved this year by 21 percentage points at Washington, 9 points at Howe and 7 points at Arlington. And Broad Ripple, a performing-arts magnet school, had some of the best results in the IPS district. White said its passing rate for algebra rose to 83 percent in 2011.
But the Indiana Department of Education says the schools have failed to turn themselves around. They are among only seven schools that have earned the lowest possible grade in the state’s Public Law 221 accountability system for six straight years – making them subject to being turned over to school management companies.
Both IPS and DOE are looking at state test scores. But they’re looking at scores for different groups of students, and they’re looking at them in different ways, resulting in very distinct conclusions about how the schools are performing.
White bases his claim for improvement on high school students’ scores – the performance of 10th-graders on Algebra and English end-of-course assessments. He’s comparing preliminary reports of ECA results from 2011 with those from 2010. (The state hasn’t yet released official 2011 ECA results).
But IPS in recent years added grades 6-8 to Arlington, Broad Ripple, Howe and Washington, converting them to “community high schools.” The Department of Education is including the ISTEP-Plus scores of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders in its calculations, along with the ECA scores of 10th graders.
IPS asked to have the schools treated as new schools when they added middle-grades students, which would have re-started the clock for PL 221 ratings. But the state refused.
“This department believes in counting all students,” DOE spokesman Alex Damron said. “Adding additional grade levels to an existing school building doesn’t mean the school is brand new, and doesn’t mean the school should not be held accountable for its ability to teach students.”
White has a point, though. Legislators who approved PL 221 apparently meant to give schools six years to get their act together. When it comes to younger students, IPS high schools haven’t had that long.
Test score improvement can get a school out of the failing category. But the DOE is using a different method than White to determine whether a school has improved. By its calculation, the IPS high schools got worse, not better.
Eighteen Indiana schools had received failing marks from the state for five straight years and were at risk of being taken over if they failed again. But only seven of them got Fs this year: the four previously mentioned IPS schools along with Manual High School and Emma Donnan Middle School in IPS and Roosevelt Academy in Gary.
Interestingly, five of the six high schools facing state takeover had added middle grades and arguably received lower grades as a result.
So why is IPS moving middle-school kids to its high schools? Just a few years ago, the knock on IPS high schools wasn’t that their test scores were low, but that their graduation rates were abysmal. Officials thought community high schools would do a better job of keeping students on track to graduate.
And the approach seems to have worked. According to the Indianapolis Star, graduation rates have improved significantly over the past three years: from 52.5 percent to 78 percent at Howe; from 49.3 percent to 69.4 percent at Washington; and from 48 percent to 66.4 percent at Arlington.
But graduation rates aren’t a factor in the state accountability system.